Much has been written about guitar setups intended for slide. I’m not going to tell you to have a dedicated guitar that’s configured for slide. I rarely do that unless I’m on a long tour and using a specific guitar for slide every night. In general, I play slide on the same guitar I’ll play the rest of the set with. However, action that’s too low will hinder your slide playing. You have to find balance, but it is possible. It might take some experimentation, but you can play slide on the same guitar you play all the time. Typically, I use a guitar strung with a .010 set for both regular and slide guitar.
In the following audio examples, I used the bridge pickup on a stock Fender American Standard Stratocaster into a Victoria 518 with both the Archer Ikon and the Origin Effects Slide Rig. I recorded it with an AEA A840 ribbon mic and the UAD Helios 69 Unison preamp.
What I Never Learned in Study Hall
Now it’s time to dig into some exercises. First, we’re going to work using the slide on one string. I know, Captain Boring just showed up to the party and brought water and white bread as treats. But bear in mind that everything you will learn on one string can be applied to all six strings. Personally, I like starting out on the 3rd or 2nd strings. The 1st string presents some of its own challenges, especially on a guitar that’s not set up well for slide.
We’re going to work out some examples in the key of D major (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C#). At first, we’re not going to use the entire scale. We’re going to play chord tones from a D major triad (D–F#–A) against the D drone. We’re naturally used to hearing the sound of chord tones. Because of this, it will be easiest to develop our intonation using these notes.
One more thought before we dive in: Technique has an impact on intonation, and an inconsistent hand position can make your pitch wander. My thumb moves with the slide, always sitting behind my first finger, and I suggest you try that too.
Let’s make sure to not use vibrato. We don’t want anything masking the note we’re starting from or landing on. Yes, I know it will be painful at first. Be prepared when your loyal dog goes running, your spouse scrambles for noise-canceling headphones, and your kids beg to sleep over at a friend’s place.
Right now, we’re just using the 2nd string. But over time, you could apply this exercise to different strings using the same notes. You could also include a chord extension after you master simple triads. Try adding a 7 or b7 to the chord.
In Ex. 2, you’ll hear me sliding from A (the 5 of the chord) up to D (the root). I also add some major 7 (C#) and major 6 (B) flavors for color. I’m still only using one string and no vibrato.
This exercise (Ex. 3) is built around descending moves. I start by sliding from the root (D) down to the 5 (A). Then I move from the 6 (B) down to the 3 (F#). The rest of the example simply consists of methodically moving through the chord tones.
In Ex. 4, we start to infuse some country blues into the lines. We’re also going to use more than one string, though this doesn’t mean we’ll be abandoning the one-string practice routine.
In beat 1, listen for a subtle downward slide. There isn’t a destination note—we actually stop at the point before it would reach a half-step lower. This drop is the type of expressive move that the slide makes possible. In beat 2, you’ll hear a b3 slide into a 3—a classic country-blues move. At the end of the measure, you’ll play the b3 on the 4th string before resolving to the root on the 5th string.
Remember how I said the 1st string is tricky to slide on? Now that you’ve developed some control over your slide and intonation, I think it’s time we try to incorporate it a little (Ex. 5). In measure one, we’ll start off by sliding from the root (D) up to the 2 (E) on the 1st string. Next, we’ll do a similar move, but we’ll slide up to the 3 (F#). At the beginning of measure two, I slide from the root (D) up to the 5 (A). I’m definitely taking the training wheels off for this one.
It’s important not to move through these exercises too fast—either in tempo or content. The point is to improve your intonation, so take your time and work on developing pitch accuracy. Once you gain this, it will remain with you for life. If you really want to test your ear, turn the lights off and find the notes against the drone. It will be terrifying at first. But after you practice this way a few times, it becomes quite empowering.